Washington County considers delaying construction of new high school

April 17, 2008|By JOSHUA BOWMAN

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- With the slow housing market expected to continue at least through next year and a pile of capital projects to fund, some Washington County Commissioners think plans to build a new $76 million high school can wait a few years.

Commissioners President John F. Barr, Vice President Terry L. Baker and commissioners William J. Wivell and Kristin B. Aleshire said Wednesday they would like to push back funding for the project, which is slated to begin in fiscal 2011.

Barr and Baker said funding should be delayed for one year, Aleshire suggested two to three years and Wivell said the project should be put on hold until student enrollment justifies its construction.

The high school, which would be built in the eastern part of the county, is the most expensive project in the county's six-year capital improvement plan (CIP), which is used to fund big-ticket items such as roads and schools.


Despite state funding cuts and deep reductions in excise tax and transfer tax revenue due to the housing market downturn, initial six-year CIP requests this year exceeded $800 million.

The county has whittled that amount down to about $529 million and could reduce it further before the budget is passed in June.

Under its current schedule, funding for the new high school would be spread over four years, starting in fiscal 2011 and ending in fiscal 2014.

But several commissioners said that schedule should be delayed to free up money for other projects.

Barr noted that the county has more than $105 million in road improvement projects in its six-year capital plan. He said some of those projects must be completed before a new high school is built.

"If you build a high school and those issues aren't taken care of, it just makes it worse," Barr said.

Aleshire said the downturn in the housing market has slowed the increase in student enrollment rates, making the high school less urgent than it once was.

"It doesn't make sense to fund a new high school as soon as we had projected," Aleshire said. "The CIP has to be flexible."

Commissioner James F. Kercheval disagreed, however, noting that all of the county's high schools except Hancock Middle-Senior High are at or near state-rated capacity.

At a minimum, the $3.8 million budgeted in fiscal 2011 for engineering and design of the high school should be left in place, said Kercheval, who added that construction could be delayed a year if the housing market does not turn around.

"Go ahead and get the thing designed," Kercheval said. "To think you're never going to need a new high school is silly."

However, Wivell said he has seen no evidence that a new high school is warranted.

He said enrollment counts are not accurate because students in the ESSENCE program, which allows high school students to take classes at Hagerstown Community College for a half-day, are counted as full students.

Wivell and Baker said the county should delay the project and use the money saved to reduce borrowing.

The county commissioners talked about funding for the high school during their Tuesday meeting, but did not make a formal decision to delay that funding. They might do so as they wrap up budget discussions over the next few weeks.

A public hearing on the county's fiscal 2009 operating budget and six-year CIP will be at 7 p.m. May 20 at HCC's Kepler Theater.

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